Nikko convinced me that attacking Ragnaros was still a bad idea, even though we had Avalanche on our side. He didn’t have to try too hard. Deep down I knew that Ragnaros could probably kill my new companion just as quickly as my old one.
“Let’s just stay here,” Nikko suggested, “we are strong enough to find food and water when we need it and we have the shield. There is no reason to leave.”
I looked deep into his eyes and realized that he was indeed, broken. Or maybe he was more broken when we first met, but either way, he was speaking nonsense, so I told him so.
“Fuck you,” he said. Then he went back to reading one of his magazines - as if the hottest tattoo trends of 1995 was pertinent information.
Most of our conversations over the next few days went the same way, but I didn’t think any less of him for it. He was coping the only way he knew how and that was all that mattered. Lorelai, on the other hand, was moving in the opposite direction. She frequently fell into loud fever dreams, yelling at her parents in her sleep. We woke her up the first few times, but the screams when she was awake sounded more painful than the ones when she was dreaming, so we stopped. Nikko and I sat in the parlor for long stretches of time, listening to nothing but her desperate pleas build to soul piercing screeches. Over time, Lorelai's wailing became as reliable as the gray night sky.
Gangrene festered in the charred flesh of her stump every other day. When it came, Nikko sacrificed most of his health to heal it. The action left him exhausted and weak and angry that he couldn’t just heal her leg back. Nikko got about an hour every other day when he wasn’t recovering or healing. He used it to practice his Inscription ability, hoping to find a way to enchant a magical appendage onto someone. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it probably wouldn’t work.
When Lorelei finally died, the silence that filled the Parlor was haunting. I would have preferred to hear her screams for the rest of my life if it meant she could still be there with me. It was a selfish thought though. She was suffering, and our attempts to heal the infection that finally took her just prolonged her pain. Nikko and I didn’t talk for an entire day after we buried her next to Grandma. There was just nothing that needed to be said. All of it broke my heart. She didn’t deserve to go out that way. All she wanted was to live her life how she wished for once. And as soon as she was able to, her life was snatched away from her. It was as if it didn’t belong to her at all and when she tried to take control of it, she paid the ultimate price.
I think I went mad for a while. The next few days were a blur of dark thoughts and emotions I don’t care to recite. If I did, you would think I was went crazy long before Lorelei died, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
When I finally regained my faculties, only one thing was clear. I wasn’t going to let someone else pull the strings of my life. I wasn’t going to let someone else orchestrate my path. And I wasn’t going to fumble around, ignorant of the routes and problems around me, like I did before the rainbow letters came. I was going to stand up. I was going to put an end to this one way or another, even if it meant dying a slow and painful death like my first ever female friend. I realized then that her death wasn’t a tragedy. Her life before the Apocalypse was, and so was mine. She was sheltered and alone just as I was, only for different reasons.
I asked Nikko if he would come with me to train, and eventually to kill Ragnaros. His face wore a permanent frown now. I could see in his sunken eyes that he had no logic left to throw at me, no retorts, and no desire to convince me it was still a bad idea.
“Ye.. Yes,” He said, his voice cracking from unuse.
“Good,” I said. Then I summoned the rainbow letters with a wave of my hand.
You have leveled up! Please choose an ability!
Bait 2 - Improves control of your yellow Scrounger pheromone.
The Matrix 2 - Extends the duration of this skill to 7.5 seconds.
Power Punch - An activated punch ability with a mediocre cool down. Guarantee a critical hit.
I would like to say that I chose the Power Punch ability for some hopefully romantic reason, but I didn’t. I now understood that Lorelai was never going to be my girlfriend, and I understood that she wasn’t a damsel that needed saving. She was just a person, like me. If that realization made me mad, it was because I treated her terribly. I objectified her from the moment we first met, and I thought some profoundly ignorant things toward her. Guilt wasn’t the reason I chose the Power Punch ability either though. My logic behind the decision was mostly cold, and without emotion. At least, not the sort of sentiment that revolved around Lorelai. I chose the ability because I was familiar with the game mechanics now. I knew that every time I reached a new level, I was always offered the chance to upgrade a skill I already had. I already had a plan to improve my Matrix ability, so what I was after were new skills. Also, I wanted to feel my bare knuckles cut into Ragnaros’s camouflaged face. It was more intimate that way.
My Grandmother plopped into existence on the parlor floor with a puff of purple makeup dust. She curled her feet underneath herself, greeted me with a smile, and waited patiently for Goldrin to waddle over to her.
“He’s dead,” I said plainly from the parlor chair. She studied me for a long time. I let her do so quietly and looked down from my seat and deep into her eyes. Perhaps I was expecting a happy scene from my childhood to re-play in thier reflection and remind me that everything was going to be okay. Perhaps I was looking for something that would remind me of the person I used to be. Perhaps, I was simply staring at her because she was staring at me.
“I see,” she finally said with a sigh. “Milton, sweetheart, this will be my last time visiting you. Now, I don’t want you to think its because of Pomm-”
“Why?” I cut her off, eager to understand why she couldn’t come back, just in case I could learn something about how this world works. If I did, there was a slim possibility I could leverage the information to destroy Ragnaros.
She stumbled over my uncharacteristic interruption for a moment, then said, “Because you are ready.” Then she disappeared with a blown kiss.
“No!” Nikko yelled as he forcefully stood from his chair. He looked at the spot where Grandma sat just moments ago, then his eyes fell upon me. There was a desperate sadness behind his eyes. He reeled on me, his voice cracking, “Why did you do that!” I stood up to meet him. “You chased her away!” My fist crackled with an electric energy. Nikko’s eyes began to well as he unleashed his loneliness upon me. I punched the tears from his eyes with a sickening crunch.
Critical Hit! You’ve dealt 121 damage to Nikko!
Wow, I thought, impressed with the amount of damage I could deal on a critical hit. I figured that the critical dealt double the damage of my normal attacks, which was slightly less than what I could do with my Katana. I also knew that losing that much health points wouldn’t effect Nikko too much. The last time I checked, he had over 500 points. He was tough and strong. The only problem was that he had forgotten. He slowly turned his head back to face me, and I felt a presence fill the room. It was intangible, yet powerful and all-consuming. It was Nikko. As his eyes met mine, I saw a fury behind them. It was almost enough to make me afraid. We stared at each other, our faces inches apart and our hearts racing to outpace the other. Then he punched me back.
Nikko Ortiz attacks you - Minus 74 hit points!
I smiled. Then a small chuckle escaped me. Nikko’s intimidating presence melted away, and when he began to laugh, I laughed more.
“You asshole,” he said.
“Ha, sorry man. But you fucking needed that.”
He gave me a grudging nod, and we laughed some more. It was an odd feeling, and I focused on it as hard as I could, doing my best to stay in the moment because I knew it wouldn’t last. The rest of the world felt distant in that moment. The sharp pain in my gut after losing my Grandma and my two companions was gone and it its place, the love and respect I held for them all. Some part of me realized that I never really laughed that much. Even before the apocalypse, I was too worried about getting the best gear in video games or worrying over when the next person was going to give me a hard time. The joy I felt then was as powerful as it was brief. I realized with heartbreaking sobriety that I hadn't laughed that heartily with a friend since my DND days.
Nikko’s reality kicked in around the same time as mine. The smiles died on our faces as if they had never been there in the first place. “Let’s go,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the door, “there isn’t anything left for us here.” Nikko's face was stern, but as he nodded his head in reply, I could see that he wanted to say something. He had that same impatient body language as the time he spoke and gave up our position to the Scroungers when we had to defend our home base. This time though, he bit off his words. “You’re welcome,” I said.
He sighed and shook his head, “Shut up.” Then he stepped past me and for the door. When he reached it, he paused and lowered his head, his fingers tightly wrapped around the handle. I gave him a moment to be alone. This would be the last time he would ever see his beloved Tattoo Parlor. He knew that we would never make it back. And he was right.
I had gained one level, which I used to improve my Matrix ability, by the time we made it a few blocks over from the Parlor. We traveled the opposite direction of Ragnaros until we reached a large shopping mall. The road we walked to approach it was wider than the streets in our neighborhood. Scroungers and abandoned cars filled it. We were able to scavenge enough food from those cars to fill our stomachs but didn’t have the same luck with water.
“Someone must have come through here already,” commented Nikko.
“Yea,” I said, emptying the meager remnants from the only water bottle I was able to find into my mouth. It tasted of plastic.
I navigated my companion to the front of one of the largest stores. The outside of the cement building was covered with signs that begged shoppers to take advantage of their going out of business sale. I picked this store to enter because I knew it was closest to the food court, where I was hoping we could find water. As I ordered my Semi- Intelligent Avalanche to stay put, Nikko grumbled something about the Apocalypse.
“They have all this floor space, but they waste it,” he grumbled, “its no wonder all the big department stores are failing.” I looked at him, confused. “Look at it all! If my parlor had that much room, I wouldn’t waste it with racks upon racks of outdated and overpriced clothes. You have to give people an experience these days. You have to give them a reason to come in touch stuff, or they will buy online.”
“What does that have to do with the apocalypse?” I asked.
Nikko screwed up his face, “What?” the realization hit him. “I wasn’t talking about our Apocalypse. I was talking about the Retail Apocalypse.”
“Oh,” was all I could say. I was taken completely off guard by Nikko’s passion for legitimate business. We stood outside the doors to J. C. Penny and looked inside. He pointed out a sticker on the window that mentioned the company’s social media accounts. “Look at this!” he said, tapping the sticker, “they tried to start omni-channel marketing, but they reacted to the changing landscape too slowly. These department stores are dinosaurs that rested on their loins for too long. If the rainbow letters didn’t come, this mall would look completely different in a few years. Large gyms would take over the bankrupt department stores. Child care, movie theaters that could also hold plays, shit, anything but rack after rack of dusty clothing no one can afford.”
“Did you go to college?” I asked, dumbfounded.
Nikko scoffed, “No, that isn’t for me. You don’t need college if you just pay attention.”
“Well…” I started to disagree, but he cut me off.
“It’s like the Latin Kings back in our neighborhood. They were large, just like this store, and had a fuck-ton of members. BUT" he emphasized his last word with a waggled finger, "they refused to adapt and change with the times, man. They still jumped people into their gang. Kids these days don’t want to get beat up just to feel like they are apart of something. Why would they do that when they could just join a chat room. That’s exactly what you did, right? Why would you join a gang when you could join a guild or whatever.”
I raised an eyebrow and nodded, “That…” I cleared my throat, “actually makes a little sense. I take it that is how you took over the neighborhood in your youth? Risk free invites into your gang?”
Nikko laughed, “No, I just killed their leader. Shoved my thumbs right into his eye holes.” He smiled, a longing look taking over his face. “The so-called 'Kings' fell apart after that.”
“Alrighty then,” I said, patting my sides with my hands and snapping Nikko back to his current world of violence and murder, “You ready to go in now?”
“Yea, let’s do it,” he said, swinging open one of the glass paneled doors. The inside of the store was pitch black, aside from a faint orange light flickering somewhere behind the elevators. We passed by empty clothes racks and the occasional table filled with ‘seasonal impulse items,’ as Nikko called them. I grabbed a few of the more useful looking items and tossed them into my bag. As we rounded the elevator, we could see that the orange light was coming from the main mall. We walked out the large open wall and entered the mall proper. To our left and right were various stores, all dark and abandoned. Up ahead was the food court. The orange light was coming from a large neon panda holding chopsticks just above a buffet case. The only illuminated sign next to it read, ‘Panda Express.’ My stomach grumbled from some Kung Pow Chicken, but I doubted I would find any there. A Scrounger in an apron and holding a tray of free-samples wandered around aimlessly amongst the white metal tables and chairs. Orange reflected off the white paint as I walked over to give the creature a sample of my own.
I wiped my Katana clean on his apron and stood up. Nikko had a cup in his hand and was patiently pressing it into each lever of the soda fountain. When he got the water portion, he reached a finger up and pushed the special button. Now that I was a relatively healthy human being that worked out every night and morning, it occurred to me how strange it was that getting water was slightly harder than getting soda. If anything, it should be the other way around. Nikko grunted a happy grunt as water flushed into his cup. He gave it a smell, then drank it. The water gurgled from his mouth, pushed out by a scream of pain.
“Ah, fuck!” he said, dropping his cup and grabbing his shoulder. I rushed over and saw a chopstick sticking out of it. Nikko pulled it out and angrily tossed it to the floor. Blood dripped freely down his tattooed and sleeveless arm as we looked in the direction of Panda Express. A man was standing on the countertop, two women were behind it, and two more men in front. They all wore white aprons. Some of them had chef hats to match.
The шинэ монгол эзэнт гүрэн Gang has declared war on the Tattoo Parlor Party. Winners will receive a legendary boon! If either party refuses to fight, or all members of a party do not participate, Ragnarok will be dispatched to destroy both parties.
I stepped in front of Nikko, knowing full well that he spent most of his Inscription ink on my shield, and the rest of it trying to repair Lorelei’s leg. The man on the countertop spread his feet wide, knocking over the cash register in the process. It clanged to the floor as he pulled another chopstick from his apron. He held it in front of him; then a magical bow consisting of teal energy materialized in his hands. He notched his chopstick. I covered my eyes with one hand and my junk with another. He let it loose.
Foooom, the bow rang moments before the small wooden arrow pierced my shield and wedged itself into my cheek. I pulled it out with a grimace, my cheek stretching as it struggled to hang onto the stick. Blood trickled down my face as I stared at the man. I unsheathed the Katana from my back. One of the women behind the counter yelled something in a language I didn’t understand, then they all fled into the back end of Panda Express. I inspected them as they ran and learned with relief that they were all much lower level than me.
“Let’s go,” Nikko commanded from behind me, “we don’t want Raggy to come.”
“At least not yet,” I added, stalking forward. I fixed my Fedora tightly on my head and climbed over the counter. Landing with a heavy thud, I peered into the back of the kitchen. A thin walkway stretched ahead of me, flanked by shiny metal shelves and various overs, fryers, and sinks. I stepped into the path, careful not to lean too far to either side. I heard a small rustling to my right, just in time to see a small man hiding on the upper portion of a shelf. A cast iron pan impacted the top of my head. I fell to my knees, and the man disappeared into the labyrinth of a kitchen.
Ganbaatar Jochi attacks you - Minus 82 hit points - Critical strike!
“Fuck, that hurt,” I complained as I let Nikko awkwardly help me to my feet inside the tight space.
“Where did the little shit go?”
I shrugged and took another tentative step, my eyes darted from shiny metal surface to shiny metal surface reflected with orange. Another step. Then one more. Then my shin exploded with pain.
Chenghiz attack you - minus 34 hit points!
I fell forward, taking one of the many aluminum shelves down with me. It fell into the opposite side of the hallway where it stayed, leaning diagonally across our path and slowly emptying its heavy contents onto my back. Nikko laughed as he did his best to right the shelf and stop more kitchen equipment from falling. When he was done, he attempted to help me up again. The process was even more awkward than the last time I fell, as he did his best to fight down his chuckling. His muscles were so weak with laughter that his hands provided nothing but moral support. I sighed and activated my one-hand-on-your-knee-the-other-hand-grabbing-anything-that-will-support-you ability and got to my feet.
“Do you want to lead the way?” I asked, exasperated.
Nikko chuckled and shook his head, “Nope. You’re doing a great job.”
Two more Kitchen Ninja’s managed to sneak attack me before we made it to the back. I pulled out a handful of chopsticks from my ass and grabbed the door nob to the only door. Opening it sliver by sliver, I peeked my head inside, only to be greeted by another cast iron frying pan.
“Ahhh goddamnit,” I seethed, holding the top of my head and letting my pain-rage pulse through my body in heat waves. Nikko healed me a bit, and I asked him to guard the door.
“Yell for me if they come out,” I said before turning around and scouting the kitchen in earnest. It took an entire twenty minutes for me to check every nook and cranny capable of concealing small angry men. No one was left hiding.
“I think they are all in that room,” I reported back to Nikko.
“Cool. Go get em, Tank,” he said with a sly smile.
“Gladly,” I said, taking out my Katana once again.
Nikko gave a silent count with his fingers, then swung the door open. I charged into the darkness. "Watch you’re head!” his voice echoed after me.